Text: Matthew 3:13-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened[a] and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; 17 and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son,[b] with whom I am well pleased.”
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
Given that we are in the season of “Epiphanytide,” the lesson for today might strike us as a bit unusual. None of the usual events we might expect to read about are mentioned – there’s no further mention of the Magi, for example, nothing about Simeon and Anna in the Temple, and no narrative about the Holy Child. Instead, we have fast-forwarded to the time when Jesus comes to John to be baptized in the Jordan, an event that in Matthew’s Gospel signals the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But, in fact, this passage is where the work of Christmas actually begins.
Often when we’re pondering Biblical texts, we think that what seems difficult for us to understand was easy and straightforward for the people 2,000 years ago who heard these texts first-hand (remember that the Gospels were written with the intention that they would be read aloud). Sometimes that is true – examples Jesus uses in his parables or in his teaching sometimes were pretty obvious to them, but we have to do a lot more digging and thinking to understand what he is getting at. But at other times, Jesus’ words were just as confusing for the people of Jesus’ day as they are for us. Today’s lesson is one such example. For Matthew’s community, this baptism posed a problem: John baptizing Jesus? Wait, what? The master is not supposed to be baptized by the servant; doing so was completely backward, and went against the accepted hierarchical order of things. So maybe some of Matthew’s hearers also initially looked at this text a little bit sideways.
But Jesus says this: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” These, by the way, are the very first words Jesus speaks in Matthew’s gospel. One writer, Andrew Prior, says that he’d always thought that this was Matthew’s clever way of dealing with the issue: “John baptised Jesus because he was told to. Even he felt it was not appropriate.”
“Not appropriate”? Maybe – until we remember the words of Jesus himself, stated elsewhere, that “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 20:16, RSV). So this might be seen as an example of Jesus practicing what he preaches.
We also need to consider the times Jesus and his first followers lived in. William Barclay writes that Jews practiced baptism, but it was reserved only for converts to their faith, as a way to wash these people of their previous uncleanness; but they themselves, being the chosen people of God, had no need to be baptized. The very notion that they needed such a practice was simply absurd.
But now people came flocking in droves out to the desert to be baptized by John. Something had changed. Barclay writes: “[F]or the first time in their national history, they became aware of their own sin and their own urgent need of God. Never before had there been such a unique national movement of penitence and of search for God.”
Every one of us can understand that search. The 20th Century psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote about this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. That book, part memoir, part scientific treatise, was born of Frankl’s experience as a Jewish prisoner in four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II. He recognized that this experience had stripped him of an essential part of his humanity, but he also realized that even in the direst of circumstances people still seek meaning in their lives. Frankl was of the opinion that a sense of meaning and purpose was a basic human drive, even more so than the quest for, say, pleasure, power, or even meeting basic needs. During his career, he developed a theory of psychotherapy which he named “logotherapy,” from the Greek word “logos,” or “meaning.” And that is, of course, the same word we understand as “word,” the Logos, the Word who “was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, KJV).
Anyone who has looked up into the starry night sky and asked “what does it all mean? And where do I fit in?” echoes Frankl’s questions and walks side by side with those people who made that hot, dusty trek out into the desert to see John, wondering the same thing. They were certainly no strangers to those existential questions. And for them, there was also a deeper, scarier, question: Has God – finally – abandoned us?
Part of being the chosen people of God meant that they, more than any other people, were considered “righteous.” But had God removed that righteousness from them, as God had cast Adam and Eve out of Paradise?
So, understanding what’s really going on here with Jesus’ baptism hangs on that one word in the text: Righteousness. Pastor John Petty writes the following about righteousness:
“Righteousness is a key theme throughout Matthew’s gospel. In Jesus’ first quoted utterance, Matthew puts the word right on Jesus’ lips— ‘fulfill all righteousness.’ ‘Fulfill’ – πλήρωμα (pleroma) – is a word Matthew often associates with the prophets. ‘All righteousness’ – the totality of it – is Jesus’ solidarity with sinners, and in service to them. As Jesus will explain later (20:28):
“‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
“John’s request that Jesus baptize him would have been to affirm hierarchical relationships, the senior partner initiating the junior one. Hierarchical relationships are all upended in the new reign of God…Jesus’ solidarity with sinners is, in God’s upside-down way, the superior position.”
In other words, God’s vision and intention for the world is the exact opposite of how we see and understand it. The last shall be first, and the first last, the high will be brought low and the low will be lifted high. By having John baptize him, rather than the reverse, Jesus underscores this new reality, a reality that hinges on God’s own righteousness.
“Righteousness” is a word we’re familiar with; we talk about “righteous indignation,” for example, or “sleeping the sleep of the righteous” or in combination with other words, like “self-righteous.” But if we think that our understanding of the word is the same as the meaning of the word in Matthew, we’re probably walking on thin ice. The Greek word we translate as “righteousness” is δικαιοσύνἡ (dikaiosune), and can mean justice and justness, as well as righteousness. So that person is righteous who pursues justice and justness. Right away, we see that’s different from our understanding of righteousness, which seems to be pretty much limited to “being right.” Righteousness is something of which God is the source or author, in other words, a divine righteousness. True righteousness is not something that either starts or ends with us. So, Jesus’ baptism fulfills God’s own justice and righteousness. Moreover, righteousness is best described as “God’s judicial approval,” which we might roughly describe as “holiness.”
OK, now we have to talk about what it means when we talk about “holiness.” We affirm that God is holy, because that is God’s nature. The Bible is holy. Our church is a holy place; over the past 7+ years, I have spent many hours all by myself in this church, soaking up the holiness that saturates every two-by-four, every pew, every object, every thing in it. We tend to think that things we can see, touch, and feel are “real;” but I believe that the most real things are the things we never see. Things like love, for example – you can’t walk into Ptacek’s and buy a 12-ounce can of love. Yet every one of us has known love, continues to know love, and has given it to others. That graceful holiness that God gives us is more real than anything we can touch.
Because we can’t see it, or touch it, we fall into thinking that maybe holiness for us is at best a goal, or something we might see in others, in the same sense of what John had in mind when he spoke of the One who was coming “the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie”(Mark 1:7b, NIV). We rarely, or never, see such holiness in ourselves.
Well here’s a surprise: Holiness, like grace, is not a goal for us, or something we have to work for. Like grace, holiness is a gift to us from God. We are holy because God has made us holy; our baptisms are a symbol of that action. And because God has made us holy, God has also made us righteous.
But here’s an important thing to note about righteousness: Righteousness is not something you profess, not something you have, not even so much something you are, but something you do. If you act in a righteous way, you are righteous. At the end of his gospel, where he sums things up, Matthew says that the righteous who inherit the kingdom are those who have done the gospel.
The baptism of Jesus is both a sign of what is to come in the Gospel, as well as a sign of what is. Jesus sees the heavens open up, and everyone hears the very voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You can’t get a more definite statement of who Jesus is and of his authority than that. He is greater than Adam, greater than Moses, greater than David; Jesus is the Son of God. And those who made the trip out into the desert and were baptized by John, and who later became followers of Jesus, like us found in this the solace they needed and the answers to their most pressing existential questions.
There are those who might say that living out God’s righteousness and showing the mark of God’s holiness in our own lives basically boils down to checking one “thou-shalt-not” after another off of a never-ending list; that living out the abundant grace of God is best done by making our personal worlds smaller, narrower, and darker. But recall for a moment Jesus’ own actions. As Dylan Breuer writes: “When we say that Jesus is God’s son, going about the family business, we are saying not only that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus … We are saying that what Jesus did – his feasting indiscriminately with Pharisees and sinners alike, his free association with ‘loose’ (unattached) women and taking them into his inner circle as disciples, his refusal to defend his own honor or his families(sic) by retaliating, even to the point of his death on a cross – was God’s business on earth. Indeed, we’re saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God’s business on earth looks like is Jesus’ behavior.
“To those who find Jesus’ behavior shameful, saying that Jesus is God’s son is shaming God. To those of us who gladly receive the grace of his fellowship, his healing, and his call to us, saying that Jesus is God’s son is the best news there is.”
Jesus’ baptism, his teaching, and his actions tell us that God’s reign is not going to be characterized by John’s (or Daniel’s or Revelation’s) fiery images of judgment for those who “don’t make the cut” (sorry, fundamentalists), but rather God’s own deep dive into the lives, the ups, downs, trials, and tribulations of his people. God, in Jesus, came to us, lived among us, knows us, and consequently knows what our lives are like, warts and all.
God in Jesus is with us in all the mess of our lives; he is with us even in the mess we find embarrassing, or offensive, or disgraceful, or even unforgiveable. If this were not the case, what hope would we have in that mess we call “daily life”?! If even God could not approach it, how could God save me?
But the Good News is that he does. And because he does, we are forgiven, freed, empowered, and most of all called to ourselves do God’s business on earth – which is to live according to Jesus’ own example.
Let us answer that call!
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. One, The New Daily Study Bible, © The William Barclay Estate, 1975, 2001, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY